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But Seriously… Does Your Restaurant Website Even Have A Reason To Exist?

Yeah, that’s a little provocative.

But the question is serious. In fact, many small restaurants don’t even bother building a website anymore. A home page on Facebook, an updated business info in Google Maps/Apple Maps, a couple management uploaded photo on Yelp and TripAdvisor, and off we go to cook. Are they wiser than their larger counterparts?

What IS the main reason your visitors come to the website?

I believe there are two reasons that are so unrelated that you’d want to have two separate sites – if only it wasn’t so confusing. For Prior Guests – those who have been to your restaurant before or ordered from you – it now exists predominantly for online ordering and to a lesser extent for other logistical information.

These Prior Guests already have formed an opinion about your brand through the in-store experience. It doesn’t matter to them anymore how you position yourself online. They remember how friendly the host was, how quickly the food came out, how sticky the table felt, how delicious the lemonade tasted – whatever components of the experience were most significant to them. Now they are looking for information to facilitate their next visit.

Location, hours, menu, reservations. More or less in this order. Note that all of this, including the ability to reserve a table, can be accomplished via the Maps app – which tends to conveniently come up first in searches on the mobile devices. I don’t have the data on how many guests stop at that and never proceed to the restaurant’s website. I suspect that it’s the vast majority – because why click further when all the answers are at your fingertips? In fact, just last night I googled a restaurant I’ve been to a few times when I lived in Dallas 3 years ago. I then made an Open Table reservation straight off Google Maps page since it was right there and it had the hours and everything. I decided their menu couldn’t have changed that much, and the reviews are still solid. I never made it to the restaurant site. Just a few years ago I would have had to visit the restaurant site for that – but now that I don’t, I’m still content with the outcome and the restaurant is getting my visit. Yes, some of the Prior guests may continue to look at the menu in detail again, just to make sure that whatever they liked last time is still on the menu, or maybe to confirm that the rest of the menu is suitable to all the picky eaters in their party. It’s naïve to believe that a large number of the visitors is there to learn about the daily specials or the summer LTO – unless they got redirected from an ad promoting that particular product.

Forgetting something? Online ordering is an interesting exception. It’s the revenue generator and a tool to shift the guests to direct relationship from less profitable 3rd party aggregators. But it’s just as important to give the rest of the visitors what they want to find without annoying them with irrelevant “Order Now” pop-ups – covered here. Online ordering is also special because it’s a subsection of your site that functions as an e-commerce site and its performance can be measured and improved following simple and standard methodologies. More on Online ordering later.

Future Guests have a very different agenda. 80% of the people check out the restaurant website prior to the visit, irrespective of how they became aware of the restaurant. “Recommended by a friend: great, let’s check out the website.” “Popped up in Maps when doing “Search restaurants near me”: let’s check out the website. “ “Saw it across the street while running errands: let’s check out the website.” “Saw an interesting option on DoorDash?: let’s check out the website.” You get the idea.

The Future Guests are the main reason you have a website. They are coming to research prior to making a purchase decision. (Google’s ZMOT concept applies very neatly to this). They are building the initial connection with the brand, searching for the answer to the basic questions – Is this the right restaurant for me? Does this place appeal to me? Does it look like I would have a good experience? Would it be worth it to spend my time and money here? Is it right for my current need? Is it not quite right for now, but I would use it for a different occasion? The goal of your website is to present a broad appeal while staying true to what the guest experience is in the restaurant. The website should help the Future Guest build confidence in the experience in the shortest amount of time. it’s an opportunity to create the first impression, get entrenched into the consideration set and encourage that first visit. Whether you lead with the expertise of your executive chef, your unforgettable signature drinks, your best kids playground in town, or your dog friendly patio – that’s what should ooze off the webpage. The website visit for the Future Guest is mostly informational, but the brand personality should permeate the experience – in a way that is not detracting from the purpose of the visit. In most cases there is no online conversion target, and the length of the visit and the number of pages visited is not necessarily a good measure of success. It’s quite likely that those who linger and click around a lot do that because they can’t find the what they need to make a prompt decision.

Are there ways to incorporate conversion tracking for Future Guests? Here are a couple ideas.

  • Make reservations off the website as seamless as Opentable reservation off Google Maps page. Encourage click through to reservation for the first time visitors. Give them a special recognition when they come in.

  • Set up a landing page for Welcome Offers. Measure click-through to Welcome Offer page, include a static or (better) serialized coupon code for Welcome Offers. Set visitor cookies to recognize the device and hide the Welcome Offer on repeat visits. (it doesn’t completely prevent abuse, but certainly reduces it). Guests who downloaded the Welcome Offer are a few steps closer to trial. And if you track the redemptions of the Welcome Offer v. downloads, you will know the conversion to trial, and will be able to tweak it to a more attractive offer in the future. What do you still visit the restaurant websites for? What’s your favorite restaurant site? Let me know in the comments!


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